Top 5 early season Wooden Award contenders

(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

Unlike last season, the 2016-17 college basketball season doesn’t have one standout player to rise above the rest when it comes to the Wooden Award National Player of the Year race. There is no Ben Simmons, but there’s are a lot of great players doing great things so far this season.

When it comes to award winners, it’s sometimes hard to pick just a few worthy of end-of-the-season honors in November, though there are a few players that have started to separate themselves from their peers to this point.

Here, you’ll find a list of the top five Wooden Award contenders right now. This list will fluctuate as the season progresses. For now, these are the five who have excelled on the court and helped their team stand out.

Players are chosen from the preseason Wooden Award watch list. You won’t find Washington’s Markelle Fultz on this list right now, because unlike with the Simmons effect, team success actually matters. Current season averages are as of November 27.

1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins

Current averages: 16.0 points, 9.1 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 57.4% FG, 48.6% 3FG

Why he’s here: Fresh off of winning the Wooden Legacy championship, Ball has the UCLA Bruins. Stepping in at point guard has allowed high-scoring guard Bryce Alford to play his much more natural off-ball guard position and the results have been tremendous. Ball plays unselfish basketball and has an uncanny ability to hit teammates exactly where they need to ball to shoot. His passing ability is unmatched in college basketball and he may be the best passer we’ve seen at the college level in years.

With four point-assist double-doubles already this season and a 7-0 record, Ball has stood out by leading the nation in assists per game. The competition is about to get stiffer, especially with a road date with Kentucky on Saturday on the docket, but don’t expect much of a drop off in production from Ball.

2. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Current averages: 24.7 points, 5.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 50% FG, 56.3% 3FG

Why he’s here: If it weren’t for the player ranked just ahead of him, Evans would be considered the best point guard in the country. Relatively unknown before his breakout 42-point performance against No. 2 Oklahoma last season, Evans has captured the attention of everybody in college basketball and he’s excelled in the early going this season.

Fifth in the nation in scoring, Evans has shown an ability to score at will and take over a game whenever the Cowboys need him to. Something to watch here is how Oklahoma State does the rest of the season. Although talented, there’s no telling how they’ll do under Brad Underwood. Evans will continue to stand out for the most part, but if the team is unable to continue winning games, he will likely drop further down this list as we go.

3. Joel Berry II, North Carolina Tar Heels

Current averages: 17.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 55.9% FG, 47.1% 3FG

Why he’s here: One of the biggest stories in this young season is that North Carolina looks even better than they did last season when they went to the national championship game. Much of this success has to do with Berry playing incredible basketball. Taking on a much bigger role without Marcus Paige next to him, Berry has excelled as a go-to scorer and become a lethal three-point shooter in the process. A tough defender and talented offensive weapon, he has the Tar Heels off to a 7-0 start and playing some of their best basketball in years.

North Carolina has dominated their competition to this point, including a 40-point win over a very good Chattanooga team and a 32-point rout of Evans and Oklahoma State. The Tar Heels will continue to win, but it may be the team’s depth and collective of talent that could keep Berry lower in the rankings than other players. I’m sure he’d be okay with that if it meant the season brought a national title.

4. Frank Mason III, Kansas Jayhawks 

Current averages: 21.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists,  54.9% FG, 48.0% 3FG

Why he’s here: Bill Self has always relied on senior leadership to get his teams where they hope to go. This year, he’s calling upon Mason to step his game up one more time and Mason is obliging his his best performances. Clutch shots, an ability to take over a game with his scoring, tough defense and never backing down from the moment, Mason has put together a great season so far, increasing his usage for the Jayhawk offense and becoming one of the best players in nation.

Mason won’t get the headlines that his teammate Josh Jackson will get, but it’s Mason that will determine where Kansas goes this season. His scoring and shooting ability have improved each year under Self and it will continue to be put on display this season. This kind of output could be expected from Mason the rest of the way and if it does continue, his name will climb the NPOY rankings.

5. Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats

Current averages: 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 57.4% FG, 44.4% 3FG

Why he’s here: Hart could’ve left for the NBA, but he decided to come back. Sure, it was probably because the NBA didn’t have a great draft position for him, but it’s also because he has something great in front of him potentially. Villanova has a team capable of repeating as national champions and Hart is capable of being a Wooden Award winner.

Hart’s ability to to score in a variety of ways, from spot-up shooting to dribble penetration, is what sets him apart from most at his similar role. Villanova currently has four players averaging double-digit scoring numbers, so with the wealth being spread around, Hart could also get lost in a shuffle of great players on the same team, but we’ll see. For now, he’s right in the mix for the National Player of the Year awards.

5 others to watch:

Grayson Allen, Duke: struggling with injuries now and when the freshmen start playing could take on a lesser role.

Monte Morris, Iowa State: playing solidly now, just a bit behind the other three point guards.

Jonathan Motley, Baylor: not on the preseason Wooden Award watch list, an error that should be corrected.

Dillon Brooks, Oregon: only playing in a few games, so we’ll see where he goes from here.

Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Spartans struggling too much for him to be on the list. Team starts winning, he’ll get more consideration.

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